Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Church of Food

Recently, I’ve been thinking about religion. Not Religion religion. And not because I posted yesterday about GF foods for Passover. Rather, I’ve been thinking about food religion. More specifically, I’ve been paying more attention to the many ways in which food philosophies resemble religious denominations. Allow me to explain.

Within food circles, we tend to call different food philosophies movements or diets. The Slow Food movement. The locavore movement. The gluten-free diet. But let’s be honest – in reality, they’re all pretty darned close to being religious denominations. Each has an ideology and set of values (and within those values, certain foods and actions are deemed right and wrong). They have adherents. They gain converts. They can often be critical of other ways of thinking. And they align along a spectrum of very conservative to very liberal.

Conservative food denominations are the most restrictive - the most fundamentalist - in their approach to food, and tend to be not accepting of denominations that are more liberal than themselves. Conversely, the liberal food denominations are the most accepting, welcoming one and all with open arms. Roughly aligned from conservative to liberal, I could quickly make a list that might look like this: raw food, vegan food, vegetarian food, slow food, local food, gluten-free food, processed food, anything goes food, etc.

Now, before you criticize my ordering, I know that this is a gross oversimplification... There’s plenty of room for debate about who belongs where on the spectrum… And that, in reality, it’s not an easily aligned linear list… And that I’ve omitted plenty of other examples of food denominations. My point is simply…to make a point.

I started thinking about this topic after reading a Raw Food adherent’s heavy criticisms of foods such as pure maple syrup, pure agave nectar, and other foods that I personally consider to be “natural” and “healthy” and highly preferable to the alternatives: more refined sugar, “fake” syrup made of high fructose corn syrup, etc. But recognizing my own reaction to this Raw Food critic’s opinion, I realized that he was on a much more conservative end of the spectrum than me. I’d probably place myself somewhere in the middle, leaning toward conservative, at least in terms of my food ideology. And in the same way that the Raw Food foodie was critical of my views, wasn’t I in turn critical of still other denominations who were even more liberal than me? (Read enough of my posts, and surely you’ll see my loathing for heavily processed foods.)

Of course, such talk of religion – food centered or not – inevitably brings up questions of right and wrong. Can all food denominations be right, or are some food denominations right and others wrong? And how do we establish who is and isn’t right? Is there some food-centric “absolute moral authority,” or is food governed by relativism (where right and wrong can only be judged within the context of the culture, the denomination, the individual, whatever)? It’s a slippery slope, for sure.

Take the example of “processed food.” How processed is too processed, and can we answer that question objectively, or is it subjective? The Raw Food foodie would say that something like pure maple syrup is too processed, because it’s been “cooked” to produce it. (To the Raw Food foodie, I’d remind him that there are many wonderful foods whose nutritional power is unlocked by the cooking process, and still other foods that wouldn’t be edible at all, save for the transformative power of cooking.) For me, “fake” maple syrup is clearly too processed. Gimme the pure, natural stuff. But how do I make such a determination? How do I decide food right from food wrong? For me, the maple syrup distinction is intuitive. I just “know” what seems good and bad, at least within the context of my own food denomination.

But what if I had to clearly and succinctly explain my decision making process? Could I do it? Some thorny issues quickly pop up. For one, one of my principal objections (I have several, this is just one) to “fake” maple syrup is its abundance of high fructose corn syrup. And yet, I’m a proponent of using agave nectar as a natural sweetener, and it has a higher fructose content than even high fructose corn syrup. So what am I to make of it all? Do I have a double standard? For me, it largely comes back to that intuition. Intuitively, hfcs seems wrong, and agave nectar seems okay. Perhaps that partly has something to do with the intention behind it – mega-industrial agribusinesses use hfcs to super sweeten processed foods and trick our brains into craving more of the foods they’re trying to sell us. On the other hand, agave nectar is something I keep in my cupboard, I know how it’s been made, and I use it myself to sweeten foods. I’ve never heard of anyone keeping a bottle of hfcs in their pantry to sweeten their tea each morning.

I’ve never been one for labels, or for denominational divisions. But sometimes it does help to categorize yourself for the sake of explaining your perspective to others. Given that, then what’s my food denomination? I’m a gluten-free, largely lactose-free, mostly locavore, ethnically diverse, reasonably natural, fresh, from scratch foodie. Wow. That’s a mouthful… not quite as succinct as saying “Christian,” or “Buddhist.” But there it is, none the less. So what’s your food denomination?

- Pete


GFE--gluten free easily said...

Wow, Pete, what a great and thought-provoking post!! I can so identify with this one ... in good and bad ways. LOL I read something about religion that definitely holds true for this anology ... people want to tell you all about theirs, but they almost never want to hear about yours! I've had this experience in regards to food beliefs, too.

When we had our support group table at the Women's Forum recently, I would ask people if they were interested in hearing about living gluten free and how symptoms/illnesses can be related to celiac/gluten intolerance. Trying to be enthusiastic, but not pushy. However, right around the corner was a booth on the super antioxidant drinks. And while you were not allowed to sell anything at this forum, this person was doing the heavy duty "sell" (whether money changed hands or not). She was telling me how the products were part of her healthy diet. I asked if she was gluten free. She said she was ... that she only ate spelt. (That myth again.) I said, "Spelt is still gluten." She responded that it was ancient wheat, so less harmful. I disgreed. But, anyway, she went on to say, "Just try these products for three months and you'll be amazed at how much better you feel." She was intense, in my face with her sales pitch. Finally, I said, "If I try these products will you take the test for gluten sensitivity?" She said, "Sure, I'll do that." But then she quickly disappeared. Ha ha. Not exactly the kind of conversation I planned to have at the event, but it was amusing nonetheless.

Now that said, I'll tell you that I definitely promote being gluten free (because doctors like Peter Green say nobody digests gluten well and it's the only protein that can not be metabolized ... read in the latest Natural Solutions magazine, but I am always learning myself and aspiring to be a better eater. I am trying to eat more dairy free and sugar free (I know my website doesn't always show that! thank goodness I have folks to bake for), but I think eating gluten free is a breeze compared to those. Other things I avoid are HFCS, caffeine (chocolate is the only time I eat caffeine), soy, and MSG. So I guess I am a a gluten-free, largely dairy-free, aspiring locavore (not as much here locally as one would hope), somewhat ethnically diverse, reasonably natural, fresh, from scratch (from scratch is where it's at!) foodie. Boy, that's a mouthful! And, sorry for "blogging on your blog" ;-), but you asked. LOL


peterbronski said...

Hi Shirley,

Loved your longer response! I also thought of one more way in which the church of food parallels religion - as children, we tend to grow up within the denomination of our parents, but as adults make a decision about whether or not that's right for us.

Ugh. I hate pushy salespeople. One of my pet peeves that really gets under my skin. Your story reminds me a little of a trade show I went to earlier this winter. There was a company selling sports drinks and protein supplements for athletes. Mind you - this is a company of people who specialize in nutrition! They offered me a sample, and so I asked, "Does this have gluten?" The guy's response: "No, there's no milk in that." Seriously?

Cheers, Pete

Kelly said...

This is a great post, which hit home for me on both a food and religious level - it just so happens that I've been going through a bit of both - ugh. I understand that we need to use labels to describe ourselves to others, but I can't stand when it gets clique or judgmental. I recently had to change all of my raw recipes to "raw-inspired" (a phrase I may have coined myself) because technically an ingredient or two was not *fully* raw. Whatever. Now I'm a "raw-inspired," gluten-free, casein-free, sugar-free, semi-local, semi-fairtrade, homemade foodie.

Maybe we'll see you tomorrow at the Boulder Farmers Market. We're going with some friends and we'll be eating there in the park around 1:00.

Cheers, Kelly
PS this post is really flying around - my friends are all talking about it :-)

Kelly said...

PS I added you to my links

peterbronski said...

Hi Kelly. I'm sorry to hear about the angst you've had to endure in shifting from "raw" to "raw-inspired." Blech. That's the perfect example of how labels and people get too judgmental and critical and narrowly focused. Also, sorry we didn't catch you at the Farmer's Market on Saturday - Kelli was in a car accident last week and was in surgery on Friday, so we were close to home Saturday morning. Hopefully we'll see you there at another Saturday this season!

Cheers, Pete

Amanda on Maui said...

I've heard the "there's no milk in there" from people at the health food store when I ask if there is gluten in something their kitchen makes. I've also been told to eat spelt by health food store employees when I say that I don't eat gluten. Both of those are why I want to work at the Whole Foods store when it opens in my neighborhood. I want to be there for people who need someone more knowledgeable on food allergies/intolerances/diseases.

I'd say that at this point I am a gluten-free, partly dairy-free (just starting to be able to tolerate some again), more than halfway localvore, ethnically diverse, mainly natural, organic when I can afford it, from scratch foodie.

Say that 3 times fast.

peterbronski said...

Hi Amanda,

It's amazing how many times milk comes up when you're talking about gluten. Oye vey. Spelt, too. It surprises me sometimes how much misinformation is out there. I agree, it'd be great for the new Whole Foods by you to have a knowledgeable GF ambassador who can help people accurately and safely navigate the store...

Cheers, Pete